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The Schmooze

Sephardic Music Festival Diary

This was the first time I went to the Sephardic Music Festival. Now in its seventh year, the festival held shows in New York from December 20 to 27, everywhere from 700-person capacity clubs to synagogue basements. I went to five concerts — mostly in the Village — and took notes.

December 20: The Mast, Pharaoh’s Daughter and Nuriya at Le Poisson Rouge

Courtesy of Nuriya

The Mast is Haale and Matt Kilmer. It sounds like indie rock but more percussive — Kilmer plays breakbeats on percussion, while Haale sings and plays bass lines on electric guitar. The effect is polyrhythmic, Haale singing with a ¾ feel over a classic funk riff. Her vocals are breathy, organic, and studiously intimate. It’s as if Mazzy Star got remixed. The crowd may have been a little old for the band, but they were buying CDs at the end.

Basya Schechter led Pharaoh’s Daughter through some traditional Ladino ballads and original compositions. It was a very visual performance. Daphna Mor played flute out of one side of her mouth and a recorder out of the other, Meg Okura played a violin solo at twice the speed of the rest of the band, all the while looking stone-faced and classical.

Nuriya’s set was more physical. Backed by a horn section, a flamenco guitarist and an East Harlem percussionist, she danced barefoot over heavy bass lines, clad in skintight white jeans and controlled passion. On the slow songs, like Cielo Rojo, her opera training came out. The fast songs are strange: At first they sound like Latin pop, but the horn riffs are on middle eastern scales, and her vocals have an eastern melisma. She’s the only Sephardic musician of the night, and it’s a good sign that what she does is so non-traditional — it has roots but it is modern music. A good look for the Syrian Jews of Mexico.

December 21: Drory Yehoshua at the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue

Yehoshua’s vocal style is more minimalist than I expected from a hazan, but that’s tradition for you. He performed exclusively piyutim, traditional religious poems, mostly from the Kurdish-Jewish tradition. He talked to the crowd between songs, naming some of the texts, asking how the sound levels were. Souren Baronian backed him with stunning clarinet playing, a mix of New York jazz and Armenian and Turkish folk. It was beautiful, especially with the backdrop of the fantastically detailed Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. One couldn’t help but think of other Sephardic synagogues across the world that are now ruined.

December 22: The Avoda, Soulfarm, Moshav and DeScribe at the Highline Ballroom

This show was more Western, musically. The crowd, entirely young and mostly Orthodox, knew the lyrics to every band’s set. Yeshiva boys were jumping on and off the stage during Moshav’s set, which went for around an hour and a half. The band threw the hipsters a bone with a Tom Waits cover, “Jockey Full of Bourbon.” When rapper Kosha Dillz stage dived during his guest appearance, someone snatched his hat straight off his head. “It was pretty cool,” he said afterward. “It never happened to me before.” The Avoda play pop punk and reggae with ba’al teshuvah fervor, Soulfarm play American roots music with Mediterranean-pop breaks. DeScribe finished the night with a shorter set, marred by distorted sound. The crowd loved it anyway, but talking to him afterwards, he was dissatisfied.

December 24: Miki Gavrielov at Le Poisson Rouge

The Israeli expat community showed up for this one. It was an impressive set. Gavrielov sang with no backup for close to two hours, starting with Israeli rock songs, built around a stuttering electric guitar and a slightly overdriven bass. The end of the set moved into Turkish-folk influenced material, when band members picked up an accordion and a bouzouki. He only spoke to the crowd in Hebrew. “I don’t like to talk English onstage.” he said. “It’s harder to express myself. I want to communicate.”

Gavrielov used to go to Turkey to collaborate with musicians there, but the political situation now makes that impossible. His family comes from Turkey, and he got into the Turkish musical tradition long after he was a star in Israel. But he hasn’t gone to Turkey in years. His friends in Turkey feel like the country is shifting toward a religious, less democratic orientation. And it’s not safe there for Israelis.

December 25: Asefa, Oudblues and Gerard Edery at the Sixth Street Synagogue

Asefa is led by Samuel Torjman Thomas, a musician and ethnomusicologist who is writing his dissertation on Moroccan Jewish music, while also playing Moroccan Jewish music. He sets texts of the Sephardic community, like piyutim by Rabbi David Bouzaglo, to his own jazz-inflected compositions. His sound is informed by Berber polyrhythms and traditional melodies, but driven by improvisation. When Asefa played, you knew it was deep music. And like a lot of the Sephardic material at the festival, it’s driven by dispersal.

Oudblues are rawer, more East Coast. They have a very Philadelphia sound, with driving horns and upright bass, playing blues with a funk edge. On top of that, bandleader Brian Nadav plays a treble-y oud. It’s fusion, but the songs are there. Gerard Edery’s “Spirit of Sepharad” program presented traditional Ladino ballads, liturgical songs, and other Sephardic material, slightly classicized by Edery’s opera inflected singing. Barbara Martinez danced intricate flamenco steps that served as both visual and percussive accompaniment. The sound was warm, restrained and punctuated by moments of virtuoso instrumental playing, but the emphasis was on the material. It’s was the most traditional set of the festival.


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